Pinball in the Cathedral

The door opens.  A man squints, looks at me, and asks, “Just you?  Where are your 5 friends?” 

“What?  It’s just me.”  I have never seen him before.  I am from out of state.  My friends are at home. 

He holds the door open.  I enter the front room.  Sunlight streams through multiple curtained windows but no overhead lights are on.  He walks behind the front display case.  Folders and notebooks cover its glass top.   The spiral notebook closest to me is open to a page with a series of hash marks in various colors. 

I hand him two 5-dollar bills, the cost of one hour. 

“What games do you want to play?”

“What?”

“Most people do their research.  They know which ones they want to play.  Electricity is expensive.”

I am so confused.  This is a pinball museum.  I can’t play everything? 

“Um, classic ones, not too complicated.”

He walks off, talking to himself.  I look around.  The room contains 40 pinball games, multiple air hockey tables, three skee-balls, and piles of various parts.  Two Pachinko games sit on the floor. 

I hear circuit breakers being thrown.  Lines of games near me erupt in electronic light.  He is turning the machines on.  This feels like a scene from the Terminator.    

A much larger room sits beyond this one.  I walk into it and look around.   I now understand why he wanted to know what games I wanted to play.  I also understand why everything is off.  Hundreds of machines fill the space.  I am one person paying $10 for an hour.  Turning on everything would cost exponentially more.  I can’t imagine the electric bill for this place. 

“Good mix here, 70s and 80s,” he says from somewhere.  The way he speaks reminds me a little of Yoda:  not full sentences and yet profound.  He also possesses an uncanny ability to disappear. 

Two lines in the front room and three in the main room are now lit.  The games are carefully organized.  Each row features a sign describing the row’s date and manufacturer. 

Despite his brevity and eccentricity, the man has given me exactly what I asked for. 

I play for about a half hour on these machines.  Between games, I explore further.  A drum set stands at the front of the large room.  A bike hangs from the ceiling.  A boombox sits on top of Mike Tyson’s Punch Out.

The entire place measures about the size of a church sanctuary and is about as dark.  I get power to the games, but I do not get overhead lighting.  This is not a big deal.  Most of the lines of games I am playing are close to the windows.  It’s a bright afternoon. 

I see other games that I’d like to play.  I walk around to see if he is still upstairs.  I find a refreshment area that looks like it is from the 1960s.  Parts of games sit on the tables, casting shadows across the laminate tops.  A sign indicates that another room is the Classic Game Cavern.  I feel for a wall switch to take a look but can’t find one.  I can’t tell how far back the room extends; the dark is abysmal.        

I pull out my phone and press redial.  The front door was locked when I arrived.  A sign indicated to call a number for someone to open the door.  The building sits in the curve of a hairpin turn in north Pittsburgh.  The downstairs level is a showroom.  This level isn’t staffed. 

I call him again and ask if he can come up and turn on a couple more lines of games for me.  He emerges after a few minutes.  I ask him to turn on one line with video games and one pinball row that has Space Orbit. 

“Not Space Orbit.  That’s on the downstairs circuit.  Come back on a Friday.” 

I imagine him plugging a massive cable directly into the Pittsburgh electric grid but only on Fridays.  Still, I’m in no position to complain.  I have the entire place to myself.  I can walk up to any machine and play it for free.  This delights me incomparably.  I dreamed about this as a child.  One at a time, the games clink and ring in the dim of this pinball church. 

Wide-body pinballs measure several extra inches across.  This style is my favorite.  The play field features so many areas to explore, places to aim for.  Placing my hands on the flipper buttons feels like holding onto the handlebars of a Harley.  

The widest games I find here are Space Invaders and Superman.  I am finishing up Superman when the man emerges.  He stands next to me and says that I am just about at time.  I have been keeping track too.  He let me stay a few extra minutes.    

Our initial interaction was so confusing.  I did not really look at him then, but I do now.  His eyes are soft blue, cloudy, kind of distant.  He is 55 or 60 but the area around his eyes looks younger.  His loose ponytail falls to mid-shoulder.        

I thank him for his help.   I explain I am from out of state and did not know how everything worked.  He is warmer now.  He says that Covid shut him down for a long time.  Things are starting to pick up.  He suggests I come back on a Friday night.  Bands play and all of the machines are turned on.

I ask what he does downstairs. 

“More.” 

He is warmer but apparently still succinct.    

We walk to the door.  I ask about demand.  He says that there’s little supply because prices are high, but that he occasionally buys games back from people.  He points out a Vulcan machine. He sold it to someone about 20 years ago.  The backbox sits on a table in the refreshment area.  The cabinet, legless, waits in the front room. Walking out, I have the strong sense that this man can fix anything.

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